The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

X. George Gascoigne

§ 1. His life

GASCOIGNE, like the writers of A Mirror for Magistrates, belongs to a period of literary transition; his work is superior to theirs as a whole, though nowhere does he rise to the full and heightened style of Sackville’s Induction. Like them, he was highly esteemed in his own time, and made notable contributions to the development of poetry, but his work soon came to be spoken of with an air of condescension, as possessing antiquarian rather than actual interest. Gabriel Harvey added highly appreciative notes to his copy of The Posies, still preserved in the Bodleian library, and bearing in his handwriting the date Cal. Sept. 1577; and, in Gratulationes Valdinenses (1578) he mentions Gascoigne among the poets to be included in every lady’s library. Harvey, further, wrote a Latin elegy and an English epitaph on Gascoigne at his death, and made complimentary references to the poet in his earlier correspondence. But, in 1592, he adopted a patronising tone: “I once bemoned the decayed and blasted estate of M. Gascoigne: who wanted not some commendable parts of conceit and endeavour;” and, in 1593, he mentioned Gascoigne with Elderton, Turbervile, Drant and Tarleton as belonging to an age outgrown: “the winde is chaunged, and their is a busier pageant upon the stage.” About a year later, Sir John Davies gives point to one of his Epigrammes, by an allusion to “olde Gascoines rimes” as hopelessly out of date. Edmund Bolton, in his Hypercritica (c. 1620), says: “Among the lesser late poets George Gascoigne’s Works may be endured”; and Drayton in his epistle Of Poets and Poesy tells the truth even more bluntly. After speaking of Surrey and Wyatt, he continues:

  • Gascoigne and Churchyard after them again
  • In the beginning of Eliza’s reign,
  • Accounted were great meterers many a day,
  • But not inspired with brave fire, had they
  • Liv’d but a little longer, they had seen
  • Their works before them to have buried been.
  • In his attitude towards his work, Gascoigne further illustrates this transition spirit. He took up poetry as an amusement, and, somewhat unwillingly, came to acknowledge it as a profession. Lack of resolution combined with the unfavourable conditions of the time to prevent his attaining eminence. Gabriel Harvey, in his somewhat pedantic fashion, remarks, in a Censura critica written on a blank half page of Weedes, on the personal defects of the author.

  • Sum vanity; and more levity; his special faultes, and the continual causes of his misfortunes. Many other have maintained themselves gallantly upon some one of his qualities: nothing fadgeth with him, for want of Resolution, and Constancy to any one kind. He shall never thrive with any thing that can brooke no crosses: or hath not learned to make the best of the worst, in his profession. It is no marvel, though he had cold success in his actions, that in his studdies, and Looves, thought upon the warres; in the warres, mused upon his studdies, and Looves. The right floorishing man, in studdy, is nothing but studdy; in Loove, nothing but Loove; in warr, nothing but warr.
  • Gascoigne himself, in the poem on his “woodmanship” addressed to lord Grey of Wilton, admits that he tried without success the professions of a philosopher, a lawyer, a courtier and a soldier. He was born of a good Bedfordshire family, and educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, as appears from his references to the university in The Steele Glas and the dedication of The Tale of Hemetes the heremyte, and in Dulce bellum inexpertis to his “master” Nevynson. He left the university without a degree, entered Gray’s Inn in 1555 and represented the county of Bedford in parliament 1557–9. His youthful extravagances led to debt, disgrace and disinheritance by his father, Sir John Gascoigne.
  • “In myddest of his youth” he tells us (1, 62) he “determined to abandone all vaine delightes and to returne unto Greyes Inne, there to undertake againe the studdie of the common Lawes. And being required by five sundry Gentlemen to write in verse somewhat worthye to bee remembred, before he entered into their fellowshippe, hee compiled these five sundrie sortes of metre uppon five sundrye theames, whiche they delivered unto him.”
  • Gascoigne’s ingenuous use of the word “compiled” disarms criticism, but it makes the whole incident only the more significant of the attitude of himself and his companions towards his verse. It was occasional and perfunctory, the work neither of an inspired artist on the one hand, nor of a professional craftsman on the other. However, Gascoigne not only wrote the versified exercises demanded of him: he paid the fines for his neglected terms, was called “ancient” in 1565, and translated Supposes and (together with Francis Kinwelmersh) Jocasta, which were presented at Gray’s Inn in 1566. He took a further step towards reform by marrying a rich widow, whose children by her first marriage brought a suit in 1568 for the protection of their interests. The action seems to have been amicably settled, and he remained on good terms with his stepson, Nicholas Breton, who was himself a poet of some note. But it is to be feared that, as “a man of middle age,” Gascoigne returned to the evil courses of his youth, if we are to accept the evidence of his autobiographical poem Dan Bartholmew of Bathe. The last stanza but three (1, 136) makes the personal character of the poem obvious and this is probably one of the “slaunderous Pasquelles against divers personnes of greate callinge” laid to his charge in the following petition which, in May, 1572, prevented him from taking his seat in parliament:
  • Firste, he is indebted to a great nomber of personnes for the which cause he hath absented him selfe from the Citie and hath lurked at Villages neere unto the same Citie by a longe time, and nowe beinge returned for a Burgesse of Midehurste in the Countie of Sussex doethe shewe his face openlie in the despite of all his creditors.
  • Item he is a defamed person and noted as well for manslaughter as for other greate cryemes.
  • Item he is a common Rymer and a deviser of slaunderous Pasquelles against divers personnes of greate callinge.
  • Item he is a notorious Ruffianne and especiallie noted to be bothe a Spie, an Atheist and Godles personne.
  • The obvious intention of the petition was to prevent Gascoigne from pleading privilege against his creditors and securing immunity from arrest, so the charges need not be taken as proving more against him than he admitted in his autobiographical poems; in any case, the document interests us only so far as it affected his literary career. In the Councell given to Master Bartholmew Withipoll (1, 347), written in 1572, Gascoigne expressed his intention of joining his friend in the Low Countries in the August of that year; and his Voyage into Hollande (1, 355) shows that he actually sailed from Gravesend to Brill in March, 1573. During his absence (probably in the same year) there appeared the first edition of his works, undated, and professedly piratical, though Gascoigne afterwards acknowledged that it was published with his knowledge and consent.